When you see on-screen action (fighting, running etc…) the music tends to follow along in some way. It might hit some of the action or play along with some cool action music.
But when do you not follow the action?
I am currently scoring the feature film “Comforting Skin”, and there is a moment where a short fight occurs that did not need musical emphasis.
Without giving away too much, I can describe the scene this way: the protagonist has just revealed something important to her friend. This is a climactic moment in the film, an important part of the story’s arc, and the music is a part of it.
Then a secondary character attacks the friend from behind and a short and violent struggle ensues. (Only about 4 seconds of screen time.)
I initially tried music that followed along the short fight, a short burst of musical violence, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work.
So I thought about it for a minute and asked myself some questions:
Q: This climactic moment is about who? What is important? What is this scene about? (All variations of the same question.)
A: The scene is about that climactic revelation between the two main characters who have the central relationship in the film. This moment is an important one in the arc of their relationship. It is not about that secondary character fighting.
Q: How does this fight relate to this moment?
A: It ties up that secondary character’s role in the story as she gets almost knocked unconscious, but does not affect the core of that scene.
With that in mind I wrote a cue which responded to the climactic reveal; light, ethereal, surreal music. And I played right through the short fight, completely ignoring it, and it worked wonderfully- because it made dramatic sense!
If music hit the action it would emphasize what was not important to that scene and would take away from the important story element.
So, what is the answer to: When should you not hit the action?
The answer is: When it is not driving the story.
One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum. This is especially useful when the tension is in the subtext and not in the visuals or dialogue.
Jurrasic Park are a great example of this.
At 55:27 the character of Dennis Nedry begins the shutting down of the computer systems to allow him to steal the dinosaur embryos. This sequence is dramatically important, but the visuals are somewhat static and intercut with the characters of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm humorously getting aquainted in the Jeep, oblivious to the danger ahead.
It’s all pretty quiet stuff which requires music to drive it along and give the right tone. The music is percussive, rhythmic and filled with tension, giving this sequence the necessary propulsion and the right sense of dread.
The Jeeps stop, the fences fail, Nedry escapes. It all is important to the plot but the dialogue and visuals are mostly static or slow with benign dialogue, so the music is important here and carries through it all. (This is not a failure on Spielberg’s part, but rather shows understanding of how to use music as part of the story telling.)
And then we cut to the goat at 1:00:21 and the music stops, leaving silence. We know the goat, it lets us know where we are and it also as a foreshadowing tool that lets us know something bad is going to happen. Music is not needed.
There is no music at all during the entire T-Rex attack.
Spielberg and Williams were smart to not put any music here. They knew that the audience was seeing something they had never seen before, a truly believable onscreen T-Rex. The shock of it was made even more intense by the relatively “empty” soundtrack, which must have bee especially powerful in a theater.
And there is context to consider as well. The shot of the goat which starts the T-Tex sequence was preceded by a long stretch of music. Silence makes a bigger impact when it is preceded by lots of sound.
After the T-Rex attack is done, we cut back to the control room with a slow zoom-in to dialogue about lines of code. Not the most exciting stuff. The tension here is in their obliviousness to what is happening outside, the subtext, so the music returns here to keep the tension and momentum going.
As a side note, when adding rhythmic music to a scene, it is always amazing to me how the music changes the tempo of a scene, making it seem to go by much faster.
Bottom line: Music is great at keeping tension and momentum going, especially when there is a subtext of tension that is not necessarily present on screen. Music is not always necessary when there is strong and dramatic on-screen action.